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The UN: Slow and Inefficient, But It Works

AS Jan. 15th approaches, confusion continues over American reactions to the collective response in the Persian Gulf. The projection of military power was supposed to distinguish the United Nations from its defunct predecessor, the League of Nations. Secretary of State James A. Baker poignantly recalled this, presiding as 13 foreign ministers in the Security Council authorized ``all necessary means'' against Iraq. This international resolve ushers in a new era when enforcement action against a blatant aggressor may be, for the first time in the post-war period, a viable option. The UN has dramatically reflected the striking changes in the Soviet Union. The end of support for national liberation struggles and world revolution has accompanied Moscow's embrace of the UN. However, Washington's recent return to the multilateral fold after the unproductive Reagan years of UN-bashing should not obscure serious problems with American expectations and attitudes.

Florence Nightengale was once asked by a Royal Commission about how to improve hospitals during the Crimean War. She responded that first hospitals should stop spreading disease. Increased Soviet-American cooperation through the UN's security apparatus is a necessary but hardly sufficient step toward increased stability in the third world.

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Contrary to expectations by the charter's architects, great power entente cannot ensure peace and security in a world where power is diffuse. The Persian Gulf and Panama indicated dramatically in 1990 that reduced superpower tensions do not mean less conflict or intervention by the United States. The fundamental causes of third world conflict are poverty and non-viability of many governments and elites. These have not disappeared with warmth between Moscow and Washington.

Neither the American public nor the beltway's decisionmakers have yet understood fully the costs of working through the UN, although the benefits have become manifest. Alas, the first cost is financial. In spite of a rhetorical obsession with cost-cutting, there is considerable margin for increases. Per capita American expenditures are a dollar-and-a-half for the UN's regular and peacekeeping budgets. That's not much considering the benefits to US foreign policy: removing Soviets from Afghanistan and Cubans from Angola; installing a more democratic government in Nicaragua; halting the carnage between Iran and Iraq; beginning black-majority rule in Namibia; and now maintaining the international coalition in the Gulf.

These US foreign policy goals had been pursued unsuccessfully without UN cooperation. Multilateralism is a bargain compared to unproductive covert and overt operations, not to mention the suffering and lost development prospects of persons caught in proxy wars. The additional costs for one month of Operation Desert Shield, about $1.5 billion, would be the same as one day of combat in the Gulf. This figure is about four times the contribution by the US to the UN's regular and peacekeeping budgets in 1990.

The second cost is a loss of autonomy. American efforts to roll back Iraqi aggression provide the most striking illustration of the potential for enhanced cooperation. But the Bush administration has often come very close to exploding the international consensus because of a desire to go its own way. The initial precipitous deployment was followed by the realization that a UN fig leaf was necessary. And on several occasions since, there has been a palpable impatience with the frustrations of the Security Council.

Multilateral diplomacy is slow, public, inefficient. Compromise is the means, and half-loaves are the result. Reversing Saddam Hussein's adventurism requires the kind of international coalition-building and patience that would normally be characterized as ``un-American,'' and certainly not the typical mindset at the Pentagon or the White House.

Moreover, international standards are meant to be applied uniformly. Washington maintains that the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait is distinctly different from Israel's of the Gaza Strip, West Bank, Golan Heights, East Jerusalem, and southern Lebanon. But this double standard does not sit well. If one is to condemn intervention and occupation, future Grenadas or Panamas are going to create problems. If international law is of consequence, then judgments by the World Court in favor of Nicaragua cannot be ignored.

These represent for some the ``downside'' of multilateralism. The Bush administration and the American public have yet to come to grips with the post-cold war world where third world crises will be solved or exacerbated by mulitlateral institutions.

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